Sports Camps Score Big Goals
Mix life skill-building with athletic attitude and you’ve got the ingredients for a great sports summer camp experience.
“Parents expect children to get fresh air and exercise, supervised activities, new friends and maybe some new skills at summer camp,” says Michael Chauveau, executive director of the American Camp Association’s Keystone Section, “but they’re often surprised to find how positively a camp experience contributes to a child’s personal growth and development.”
At Future Stars Camps, with day camps in Glenside, Radnor, Doylestown and Malvern, PA and in Morristown and Linwood, NJ, director Michael Rush expects staff members to model positive behaviors such as team-building, leadership and cooperation to help children learn skills that translate from sports to life.
Skills for Life
“Sports are the ideal vehicle for learning life skills,” says Mark Major, who with his wife, Kara Klaus-Major, directs International Sports Training Camp (ISTC), an overnight camp in Stroudsburg, PA.
“Sports camp is a great teaching venue because while kids are having an awesome time, they are consciously and subconsciously learning so much about what it takes to be successful in life,” he says. Our emphasis is placed on enhancing a camper’s self-esteem, and increasing the enjoyment of a sport and awareness of sportsmanship.”
While ISTC combines a multi-faceted sports camp with a traditional camp experience, even specialized sports camps aim to help campers build character as much as they focus on athletic ability.
Pete Duncan, director of Rippin’ Rope Lacrosse Camp in Middletown, Wilmington and Camden, DE and Woodstown, NJ says, “The environment we try to create is that we’re all here to get better, but some of us are just more experienced than others. We encourage kids to help each other, which reinforces common values like communication, cooperation, teamwork, leadership and self-esteem.”
Ben Monroe, a tennis professional who directs Arrowhead Summer Camp, a tennis program in Medford, NJ, adds, “Our focus is to give children a foundation in a lifetime sport. While they’re practicing the fundamentals of the game, they also have opportunities, particularly in doubles play, to practice life skills like cooperation and teamwork.”
“Children like to be challenged and they enjoy learning how to do something better, and this builds confidence,” says Monroe. “As they make gradual improvements, we see them become more confident and have fun at any level. Like tennis, these are also good lessons for life.”
The Importance of Staff
Sports camps succeed by carefully selecting counselors and coaches who know their sports and really enjoy working with kids, and by offering a low camper-to-staff ratio.
“Our coaching staff includes high school coaches and current college athletes,” says Duncan. “Many colleges partner with youth clinics, so college athletes usually have experience teaching and coaching kids. We also look for college students who aspire to be coaches or teachers.
“Then we meet with the staff as a group to establish certain protocols regarding injuries and how to manage unhappy campers. We work hard to avoid conflicts by creating a positive environment where everyone is having fun.”
Major says that ISTC only hires staffers who have prior experience working with children, particularly in physical education or as coaches. “Because our programs are designed for the beginner to the advanced athlete, our counselors are trained to offer a broad scope of sports and adapt them to fit the needs of our campers,” he says.
Youth sports camps are not just for serious athletes. Unlike competitive teams, at most sports camps, a winning attitude is more important than winning.
“Skill-building and building confidence in young people are the fundamentals of a great sports camp,” says Rush. In an environment rich in team-building and group dynamics, campers of varied skill levels encourage each other and build friendships. Good sports camps provide the perfect setting for children to explore new sports interests and develop their talent in a healthy social venue.
“Sports camps are less about competition and more about learning skills and having fun,” says Duncan. “In youth team or school sports, it’s all about competition. If you make a team, you’re expected to perform right away while you’re still getting coaching. Because camp is an informal environment where the focus is on having a good time, we can take the time to break skills down from their most basic to complex forms. Campers can start at any ability level, work on specific skills and access instruction that they might not get during the school year, all while having fun.”
Arrowhead Summer Camp offers programs for children as young as age 4. As at many sports camps, children are grouped by ability more than age. “We have groups from PeeWee to USTA-ranked tournament players,” says Monroe. “Campers can start with no knowledge of the game or come to improve their skills.”
Like ISTC, Rippin’ Rope Lacrosse Camp considers age and ability when grouping children on the first day of camp. “We accept any child at any level,” says Duncan. “Our minimal screening process is simply to remind families that it’s summer, it’s hot and lacrosse is a contact sport, so children have to want to play lacrosse three to four hours a day.”
Some camps offer half- or full-day programs that are dedicated exclusively to improving the athlete’s ability in a particular sport. Other programs blend sports skill work and contests with games, swimming, rest breaks and other activities during the full camp day.
“By nature, kids who attend sports camps may tend to be more competitive, and sports in general are competitive. But a good sports camp should offer a program that does not stress competition as much as fitness and learning and fun,” says Rush.
Major adds, “Great teams are only victorious when they communicate, cooperate and exhibit strong leadership skills. That’s what kids learn at great sports camps.”
Ellen Warren writes for the American Camp Association Keystone Section, which serves camps and camp families in Pennsylvania and Delaware.